Though the term “soul food” gained popularity in the 1960s, the cuisine has been a part of African-American culture for centuries, and it seems the restaurant industry has taken note. That means there are plenty of options—and plenty of ways to make the wrong meal choice.
Don’t miss out on some of the best eats around. If your summer travels take you to any of these cities, pay a visit to the tried-and-true local food joint and get yourself some delicious food! You won’t be disappointed.
810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW
Atlanta, GA 30314
An Atlanta tradition since 1947, it is considered one of the last of the old-school, true Southern restaurants. Started by Lucy Jackson, a self-taught cook, the restaurant has a menu that features customer favorites like fried or smothered chicken, chitlins, barbecued spareribs and smoked ham hocks.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen
1068 Morrison Drive
Charleston, SC 29403
Located north of downtown Charleston, this tiny, unmistakable pink shack is known to lure in locals with its low country soul food favorites like fried chicken, butter beans, mac and cheese and sweet tea. Owner Martha Lou Gadsden started the tiny diner more than 30 years ago simply because she had been raised in the restaurant business.
Mert’s Heart and Soul
214 N. College St.
Charlotte, NC 28202
James Bazzelle, a native of Athens, Ga., opened Mert’s in 1998 with his wife, Renee, after a long history in the food industry. The restaurant distinguishes itself from a traditional soul food joint by also offering low country and Gullah-inspired dishes. Word on the street is the corn bread is to die for.
5412 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60644
Founded in 1997 by Mississippi native MacArthur Alexander, this unassuming, cafeteria-style restaurant features a wide selection of heavy, slow-cooked meats and sides. The food at MacArthur’s, which is located in the Austin neighborhood, is made using family recipes and has been sampled by many notable African-American “regulars,” including President Barack Obama, Dwyane Wade and R. Kelly.
Beans & Cornbread
29508 Northwestern Highway
Southfield, MI 48034
Since its opening in 1997, this Southfield eatery pays homage to its Southern roots by serving up food with “a unique blend of Southern soul and cosmopolitan style.” The menu, which includes Baby Sister’s Backyard-Style Ribs and Kool-Aid-flavored martinis, has been sampled by the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Queen Latifah and Aretha Franklin. Oh, and it’s held the title of best soul food in the Detroit area for 14 years running.
This Is It
2712 Blodgett St.
Houston, TX 77004
Frank and Mattie Jones opened this well-known soul food restaurant in 1959. Now overseen by grandson Craig Joseph Sr. and his wife, the diner continues to prepare food using secret ingredients passed down for generations. Fun fact: The old 239 W. Gray St. location was used as a backdrop in the 1994 movie Jason’s Lyric, starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Allen Payne.
327 N. Farish St.
Jackson, MS 39202
This soul food mecca was opened in 1961 by owner Wilora “Peaches” Ephram. The restaurant, located in the once-thriving African-American community in downtown Jackson, has quite the history. During the civil rights era, leaders of the movement dined here, as did then-Sen. Barack Obama while on the campaign trail.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles
1514 N. Gower St.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Established in 1975 by Harlem native Herb Hudson, this chain restaurant has gained quite the reputation for, as the name states, its famous fried chicken and waffles. Though there are seven locations in the Greater Los Angeles area, the original Hollywood location remains popular among celebrities.
317 N. Main St.
Memphis, TN 38103
This Memphis institution, famous for its sweet potato cobbler and Cha Cha, or cabbage relish, is named after owner and Mississippi native Joyce “B.J.” Chester-Tamayo’s mother. Opened in 1996 after the sudden death of her son, Alcenia’s has been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Bonus: The owner is known to give patrons full-body hugs.
2725 Clifton Ave.
Nashville, TN 37209
Dating back to 1954, this restaurant has had three generations of owners in the same African-American family. It specializes in Southern homestyle cooking served in a cafeteria style—and has been frequented by Bobby Flay himself.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St.
New Orleans, LA 70119
Located in the 5th Ward, this family-owned, multigenerational restaurant has been a neighborhood staple for more than 50 years. Named after founder Willie Mae Seaton, it is known for its “world’s best fried chicken” and has been visited by celebrities like Spike Lee and Drake.
New York City
113 W. 116th St.
New York, NY 10026
Named after Carl Redding’s grandmother, this Harlem restaurant opened in 1998, a year after Amy Ruth’s passing. It is known for its chicken and waffles, a dish they call “the Rev. Al Sharpton.” And yes, they even have a Kool-Aid of the Day.
Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant-Bar-Lounge
1312 S. St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Located a block off the Avenue of the Arts, this restaurant puts a classy spin on down-home dining. Open since 2000, it has a menu that offers up traditional soul food with treats to satisfy the sweet tooth, like Sock-It-to-Me Lemon Butter Pound Cake and Ms. Tootsie’s Famous Tropical Blend drink.
MaRandy’s One Bite Delight
530 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Savannah, GA 31401
Owner and chef Cynthia Cornish is known to serve up perfectly braised oxtails, pork neck bones, butter beans and more. Oh, and apparently her red-velvet cake with sour cream frosting is to die for. Back in 2012, her restaurant was featured in an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s cable show Bizarre Foods.
4270 Manchester Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110
Founder Robbie “Miss Robbie” Montgomery, a Mississippi native, was a former “Ikette” backup singer for Ike & Tina Turner before entering the restaurant business. Opened in 1997, the restaurant has become the backdrop for Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, a locally produced reality series that airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Florida Avenue Grill
1100 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009
Founded by Bertha and Lacey C. Wilson in 1944, the self-proclaimed “oldest soul food restaurant in the world” not only inhabits its original location but also survived the U Street Corridor riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “The Grill,” as it is affectionately called by locals, has also had its share of notable clientele, most recently Vice President Joe Biden.
Oohhs & Aahhs
1005 U St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
Located on the U Street Corridor, an area known in its heyday as the nation’s largest urban African-American community (until 1920, when Harlem took the crown) and referred to as the Black Broadway, Oohhs & Aahhs opened in 2003 as a hole-in-the-wall restaurant specializing in big portions and Southern comfort food.
Nicole L. Cvetnic is The Root’s multimedia editor and producer.
Nicole L. Cvetnic is The Root’s multimedia editor and producer.